Triathlon – It’s not a swim, a bike, and a run

May 27, 2019

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As a coach, I find it fascinating to speak with athletes who perceive the sport of triathlon as a swim, a bike and a run. They adopt this mindset when approaching their training and their racing, and I’ve gotta say – they’ve got it all wrong!

Let me give you some context to this statement. Not too long ago I took onboard an athlete who was returning to the sport from a stress fracture in their tibia. It had been months out of the sport for this athlete, and it was going to be a long and careful road back to being a ‘triathlete’ to a point of managing a full training load and planning any racing. The nature of the injury allowed the athlete to continue with their bike and swim training for the duration of the injury, but no run training. So naturally, the bike training was coming along nicely without any run load effecting it. Months down the track, I am pleased to say that this athlete is now managing a full program as we prep for their first race back from injury, which is great, but not without it’s psychological challenges for the athlete.

The (gradual) introduction of running into the program required compensation in the bike training, and so there was a reduction in bike training to allow for the increase in running. With reduced load, and bike sessions now being taken on with the effects of running sessions in the legs, naturally the data produced in the bike sessions is going to take a hit. The expectation that the bike load and the bike outputs will remain while we essentially go from no running to a full run program (again, this is over months and months of work) is unrealistic. For example, if you have a long run on Sunday, it will have an effect on your legs for your Monday, Tuesday and possibly even Wednesday bike sessions (depending on the runs duration and intensity of course). But this is just all part of the process with a multi-disciplinary sport.

So for this athlete, while their bike data may not be quite what it was when they were purely swim / bike training, it doesn’t mean they’ve gone backwards in their fitness. The reduction in output on the bike data needs to be interpreted within the context of the whole program. We aren’t cyclists, and despite what Lance Armstrong says – in our case, it’s definitely not ‘all about the bike’. The challenge for me as a coach is to help this athlete understand the bigger picture around the reduced output in their bike sessions, help them to see that the gains in their running and overall fitness will far outweigh their compromises on the bike, and I can guarantee this athlete will produce a much better finish line result (regardless of how that is made up in terms of swim, bike, run splits) now, than where they were months ago.

Although this particular example is quite extreme (going from no running to eventually a full triathlon run program), I’d encourage all athletes to consider the big picture of their training and racing before casting any judgement on their training and racing. You had your fastest bike split ever? Great! But how did that fit within your run and swim? Or you feel you’re going backwards in your swim training – what else is going on? Rather than look at your swim program as ‘not working’ for you, look at the big picture. Have you increased your run or bike load, changed your strength program, is it a particularly stressful time at work, family stress going on at home, changes in eating or sleep habits? All of these things will have an influence. It may be a case of just having to ride it out or you might need to make some changes, but either way understand that you’re not a swimmer and you’re not just swimming.

Human beings have a finite amount of energy, and for a multi-discipline sport like triathlon it’s about how to best manage your energy distribution across your swim, bike and run that will get you your best finish line result, not a PB in the swim leg, the bike leg or the run leg in isolation.